Friday, 30 October 2009

Why not?

Archaeologist Trevor Watkins of Edinburgh University has an interesting idea which he aired on the Archaeology Theory and method Discussion List, since the archives are only accessible to members, with his permission, I post his thought-provoking comments here:
Where a particularly iconic artefact or group of artefacts should be curated and exhibited has become a matter of public debate in recent years. The Troy treasures, excavated by Schliemann, taken to Greece, exhibited in London, but finally donated to the German people and housed in Berlin, until they were spirited away to Russia, are a case in point. How could it ever be resolved where they should exhibited and which modern state should 'own' them? [...] when they were shown in public for the first time in Russia after they had been examined by an expert group of international archaeologists, they were at once claimed by the Turkish, Greek, and German governments. The USSR response was that they should be considered Russian, as part of the restitution for USSR losses at the hands of the Nazi forces in World War II.

I think that it is very significant that the public, and archaeologists, have accepted that a visit to Lascaux II, or to the facsimile of Altamira, is equivalent to seeing 'the real thing'. I heard a lecture by Paul Bahn yesterday evening in which he said that he found the replica Altamira more useful to visit, because you can walk around on an even floor, with the painted roof at a convenient distance above your head, and the lighting of the replica allows you to see more and see better than you can in the original cave.

Museums now have the ability to make replicas that are indistinguishable from the real thing - which even feel like the original and weigh like the original. I wonder if the answer to all these claims for the return of objects could not be resolved by making replicas, and then swopping them about. Thus, Nefertiti could spend a year or two in Cairo, while her body-double sits it out in Berlin; she could then head back to Berlin for a period, passing her double in mid-flight. Within a decade, no-one but the curators of the two museums would know which of the two was where. And the evidence is that most of the public would be perfectly happy. In fact, if I could
see the Elgin Marbles when I was in London, but also see them together with the other sculptures that Lord Elgin left behind, and in the shadow of their original and intended location, I would count it a gain.

So I would propose that national museums make bi-lateral agreements (a) to have replicas made of these artefacts of contended national ownership, and (b) that originals and replicas then be exhibited turn and turn about without any notification to the public of which was in front of their eyes, the 'the real thing', or the authentic replica.
Interesting concept.

1 comment:

Tarquin said...

Brilliant idea! Far too sensible. (And for those who are sure they could tell the difference, any guesses as to which of the British Museum's star attractions are actually replicas anyway, with the originals in secure storage?)

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